One For Sorrow, Royal Court Theatre – Review

Your fear, the fear you have is just an excuse to do terrible things, and to do nothing. Which is also a terrible thing. Imogen

L-R: Pearl Chanda and Kitty Archer / All photos © Johan Persson

It has been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Similarly, it has been said that “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure.” That morals are dropped at the first sign of trouble and civilised people will ‘devour’ each other… Written by Cordelia Lynn and directed by James Macdonald, One For Sorrow examines this hypothesis up close. An explosion in London followed by people held hostage in a nightclub has everyone on tenterhooks. For one family, this is especially worrying as one of their relatives is in the area where the incidents have taken place. The response of politics student Imogen (Pearl Chanda) is to post on Twitter #OpenDoor – the inference being anyone caught in the events outside and can’t get home would be welcome to stay over for the night.

rctots - ResizeWhile Imogen has the full support of her younger sister Chloe (Kitty Archer), their parents Bill (Neil Dudgeon) and Emma (Sarah Woodward) are aghast at this ‘altruism’. Even though Emma and Bill consider themselves liberal, open-minded and compassionate, their initial discomfort at the prospect of strangers turning up on their doorstep puts them at loggerheads with their children. Then ‘John’ turns up…

As a British Asian, John (Irfan Shamji) is certainly not the sort of person they were expecting and without doing and saying very much, has the family on edge. For the parents, their liberal credentials are put to the test – trying to be ‘polite’ and congenial, but not wanting to acknowledge the ‘elephant in the room’. For the sisters, a similar test awaits them. They are intrigued by John, perhaps even a little attracted to him. But will their independent thinking hold, or will they over time come around to their parents’ view of things?

While it would rile Bill no end to think this, there are similarities between himself and John. Both live in houses that are predominantly populated by women. Both men are generally not listened to by the others. The ‘ambivalence’ towards men is also expressed by Emma, upon John’s arrival. She’s just got around to accepting that women might be in need that night, like her niece Elizabeth. But having a strange man turn up? That’s just asking for trouble…

Irfan Shamji and Pearl Chanda

Asides from the direct dialogue between the characters, Lynn uses oblique language and character actions to get ideas and points across. When John quotes the book of Genesis when he’s given an apple (“And the woman gave it me and I did eat.”) it indirectly refers to Adam blaming Eve for his actions and deluding himself about his own culpability. Could this be said about anyone in the play..?

Lynn continues the fruit motif with John peeling the second apple he’s given. The first one he devours in haste. The second… the careful removal of the peel suggests scrutiny for something ‘rotten’ beneath the surface – something that could apply to anyone. The way John responds to the numerous questions, there are always more than one way of interpreting them, leaving it to one’s own conscience whether your suspicions are misplaced or not.

The ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of one’s thinking is central in the play. Not so much in thoughts per se, but one side telling another their point of view and statements are ‘wrong’. That they shouldn’t even be voiced. Of course, the characters have a dissonance between what they express as their thoughts and feelings, and what they really feel…

Clockwise: Sarah Woodward, Pearl Chanda and Kitty Archer

There have been other plays where the cast’s surroundings have gradually and physically conveyed the emotional trauma on stage (including Royal Court’s Birdland in 2014). Here, the set and lighting design of Laura Hopkins and Guy Hoare deftly shows individual moments of grief, as well as the slow disintegration of the fabric of the home…

© Michael Davis 2018

Four-and-a-half stars

One For Sorrow runs at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs) until 11th August.

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